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Yelling doesn’t work—5 tactics to try instead

When you start out in this journey of motherhood you never imagine that you could yell at your kids. I mean, they are your precious babies, so innocent and sweet.

Then your sweet baby grows to be a toddler then a preschooler and starts pushing limits and testing your patience. You soon realize that maybe you aren’t that perfectly patient parent you thought you were.

You find yourself arguing with a little person who sounds very mature, but in reality is quite immature in their brain development. This little person starts pushing buttons you didn’t even know you had.

Then you realize the truth: they installed the buttons. In other words, you and your child are probably similar in certain ways, either personality or temperament. These shared characteristics are part of what makes it easy for them to test your patience.

The good news is that we are the adults with the mature brains.

We can bring ourselves out of a bad moment or call upon our higher order brain to handle these stressful situations, if we can keep a few helpful hints in mind:

1) Remember they are little

This seems simple, but at times it’s harder than it sounds. We are around our kids all day. We know what their little toddler language means, we know what (most) every whine and cry is trying to signal. While this is great, it also means that sometimes we forget their smallness and immaturity.

Even as toddlers, our kids can do so much—climb, listen to stories, color, and play. In the course of a day, however, they have to make a lot of transitions and manage complex social interactions.

At some point, they just can't do it anymore, and they lose it. This is when it’s key to remember how little they really are and allow them to be little.

I have found that just keeping this in mind put all the tantrums and whining into perspective.

One of my favorite child development authors, Janet Lansbury, puts it this way, "During the toddler years, our most reasonable expectation is the unreasonable.  Expecting the madness makes it far easier to keep our cool."

2) Count

We’ve all heard the advice that as a parent we can count to ten to calm down. This may work, but I have found that using the counting trick with kids works well too.

It’s not about putting a limit on their emotions; that is not a helpful strategy. It’s about giving them a chance to modify their behavior.

For example, if your child is doing something that is against the rules and will not stop after repeated calls from you, you can start the counting. You could say something like, “I’m going to count to three, and if you do not stop climbing on the furniture, you will go into time-out” (or whatever you feel is the appropriate disciplinary tactic).

Although simple, this strategy is effective because it works with your child’s limited brain maturity.

It gives them time to process the situation. Sometimes we forget that little ones take longer to process information that we do. This gives them a few minutes to think about what they are doing before further action is taken. It also helps you as a parent, because you can remain calm while doing this, and avoid yelling.

3) Model emotional regulation

This, of course, sounds easier than it is. Intellectually we know that our kids learn from every word and action they see from us. However, in the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to keep our cool.

Research has shown that children, whose parents overreact to their child’s tantrums, tend to increase in their negative behavior over time.

In other words, parents who do not overreact, but instead model good emotional regulation, really do help little ones learn that skill. It’s important to note that this study was among very young children (18-27 months), when tantrums are very common.

What this tells us is that even though toddlers are prone to tantrums at this age, with our guidance and emotional modeling, this behavior does not have to be the norm for long.

4) Understand why yelling doesn’t work

In the heat of the moment, yelling often emerges from our mouths like a firestorm, without us really considering its impact. Consider this, how do you feel when another adult yells at you? Sad? Frightened? Angry? Now put those emotions into the body of a toddler. Not a great experience, right?

Studies show that people tend to remember words spoken in a neutral tone better than those spoken in a sad tone.

We know from research—and life experience—that yelling is counterproductive. Psychologists have shown us that individuals, kids included, have a much harder time remembering things or functioning well cognitively when their brain is flooded by distressing emotions like anxiety or fear.

This is why when you yell a command at a child, they are unlikely to actually follow through on it. Just knowing that yelling is ineffective might be enough to give you pause before you let loose a verbal tirade.

5) Take time to reconnect

Just like adults, kids sometimes misbehave when they feel distant or disconnected from those who love them. When you are fighting with your spouse, do you feel ready and able to do your best at your job? Probably not, and kids are the same way.

Yelling does not help with feeling connected, but quality time does.

Once the tension has passed, it is often helpful to spend some one-on-one time with your child to mend the connection. Unlike adults, however, kids may not have the verbal or emotional maturity to say that they need time with you. They may act out instead. This is your cue to take a few minutes to calm the situation and do something that your child enjoys.

Play is the really the best form of reconnection with kids.

It does not have to be a big production—maybe just a few focused minutes playing a board game or Legos. If your child enjoys arts and crafts, then working on a project together might be just the thing to reconnect. Afterwards, you might find that you and your child are both a little less edgy.

With a little mindfulness and a few strategies, yelling does not have to become a permanent aspect of your parenting repertoire.

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